Is Clayton Keller the Next Sidney Crosby?
It’s easy to overlook the Arizona Coyotes.
They were in ownership limbo for years before Andrew Barroway purchased the club, but now they constantly have the specter of relocation looming over them. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2011-12 and, barring anything incredible, won't change that trend this season. Their best players -- like stud defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson or forward Max Domi -- don’t really grab the headlines regardless of their skill. Anthony Duclair hasn’t really found his stride since coming over from the New York Rangers and Dylan Strome, despite his draft status, has yet to get more than a handful of games with the big club.
Things might be changing, though, with the arrival of Clayton Keller.
The Boston University and United States National Development Program product has scored at every level, and that trend is already continuing in the NHL. He has 10 points (6 goals and 4 assists) through the first nine games of the season, and Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet is already paying him big compliments, even if he states them with a disclaimer.
"I'm not going to compare him to [Sidney] Crosby, but he gets the puck in the corner and his heart rate goes down," Tocchet told The Boston Globe earlier in October. "He doesn't throw pucks away. He can find the good ice and make a play or he can hold it."
At the risk of stating the obvious, Keller is not Sidney Crosby and simply can’t drive play at the level of the Pittsburgh Penguins' captain. The young winger has also been more commonly compared to Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, which is a smoother match in terms of physical size and style of play, but we’ll still have to see replicate the senior American’s ability to hold onto the puck at the NHL level.
The most obvious strike (using that term loosely) against Keller thus far is his possession numbers.
Through the start games of his NHL career, he’s posting a 45.11% even strength corsi, according to Corsica. While his relative even strength corsi isn’t much better (-1.4%) those numbers aren’t incredibly damning. Not only is there a small sample size -- his metrics will change after every single game this early in Keller’s career-- of under 200 shots for and against, but he’s a young player on a bad team. Most 19-year-olds would have holes in their game at any level, let alone playing against the opposition’s top defenders in the NHL.
It’s also worth remembering that Keller’s shooting percentage will surely regress. He’s currently scoring on an insane 22.22%, well above what even the most skilled player will post over his career. For context, Crosby and Kane shoot around 12% and 13%, respectively.
While the point production will drop off, we can see Keller’s potential in his individual shot and chance generation rates. While we’re obviously still dealing with the same disparity in sample size, the Arizona forward’s production compares favorably to Crosby and Kane, as well as John Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames, another small American forward.
In terms of individual expected goals per 60 minutes, Keller is generating .88 of an expected goal every hour of ice time. Crosby comes the closest to matching that with .83, while Kane (.63) and Gaudreau (.59) are further behind. There is less of a spread in individual corsi for per 60 minutes--Keller leads with 14.61, ahead of Crosby’s 14.4, Kane’s 14.31, and Gaudreau’s 11.43--but the Coyotes rookie is still looking good.
Both of those stats speak to individual, repeatable skills that should stick with Keller across all situations -- whether you're Crosby or someone like Tanner Glass, those rates generally don't change a great deal over an NHL career. While both will likely regress a bit as he plays more NHL games, it seems safe to say that his skill level has not been lost in translation at the highest level.
He’s not only good enough to get his shots off, but has the smarts to compliment that ability by getting into good situations on the ice, as seen in his first NHL goal when he picked up an Alex Goligoski shot in front of the net and swept it around the goalie.
Is it a bit presumptive to refer to Keller as making Crosby-esque plays? Definitely.
The NHL, like other elite leagues has a way of figuring out a player’s tendencies and shutting them down. But even as defenses figure out how to key on Keller, his ability to get shots off and generate dangerous chances should remain strong. We’ve seen guys like Gaudreau and Martin St. Louis prove those skills can be enough to compensate for a smaller stature. That ability is something that could make the Coyotes worth watching.